Day 81 - Wednesday 21st June - Sara'eyn to Kandovan

The morning was crisp and clear. Loris had a headache from the 1700m altitude. I had thought that we would have been off the northern Iranian Plateau when we came to the Caspian, but on a closer look, it continues into Turkey. The Caspian lies as a huge drain hole in the middle of it with an altitude of -35m.

We have had trouble with the Garmins for the past few mornings. They have failed to calculate the route. This morning was no exception and the lead car drove us around town before we found the right road out of town. But in the process we found a plane parked at the end of the main street, a bit like the Yak in Osh. It may have been someone’s home, a shop or café.

Distant snow capped peaks followed the road. The whole landscape was dry. Cattle and sheep grazed on the hills and on the few flatter valley floors cotton and wheat grew.

We were on a back road. The traffic was light and we enjoyed the best driving in Iran. No one was trying to kill us. Maybe we should have been on these all the time as the road condition was very good.

We passed through the town of Sarab. It looked like it had been struck by an earthquake. There were kilometres of unfinished buildings. Bits of reinforcing steel sprouting everywhere, the frames standing like skeletons and half finished brick walls. Apparently the previous President had embarked on a massive construction program, committing most of the Iranian Budget to construction of low cost housing all over the country. The objective was to give or sell these to the poor on a 99 year finance arrangement. Despite the attraction of leaving the mortgage to Allah and the kids, the program was not well received as the apartments were very poorly constructed and in the country, not where the jobs were. And unlike the Chinese, Iran did not have the funds to just transplant a couple of steel mills to fix the problem. The President has gone, but the decaying ruins still blot the landscape.

The current moderate / progressive President Rhouani is well received by the hopeful people with whom we have managed to discuss politics.

The other blot on the landscape are the religious posters. The pictures of the Ayatollahs Khomeini (Islamic Revolution) and Khamenei (current supreme religious leader) rein down on the populous from every available vantage point, just to remind them how to wear their scarves, how and when to pray (if they had forgotten) and “Down with Israel”. The propaganda seems to be very effective as all the women are wearing their scarves. Some stridently with heavy black shrouding most of their head, while others somehow manage to balance a piece of silk on the back of their head. It maybe that the fines and religious police helping to reinforce the message, helps. I think I’m back in 1984.

Tabriz with a population of nearly 2 million is the largest city in Northwest Iran and its economic hub. Ethnically and culturally it has a stronger link to Azerbaijan than to current day Iran. Most of them were in their cars to greet us as we arrived.  

The bazaar covers more than 7sq kilometres. Loris gave the carpet section a good shake before I decided that things were getting carried away. Call me mean, but we did not have a lot of room to store a 3x2m kilim in the car unless one person gave up wither their seat or bag. We did not come to buy a carpet and had other things to see. Tabriz has its own traditional designs as do many of the carpet centres in Iran. Someone with some knowledge can immediately tell you where the carpet was from, by the designs.

There are both halls and caravansaries in the Bazaar. The halls are brick passageways with vaulted brick ceilings lined shops. The caravansari are open courtyards with shops on the four sides. Traditionally the craftsmen would work here making whatever that part of the bazaar was noted for, carpets, jewellery, copperware or scents. Today most of the manufacture has moved out of the Bazaar.

The carpet section was one of the strong points. Golden jewellery lined the stores of another section, and then there was all the day to day stuff such as clothes and toys. The spice section was small and coppersmith virtually non-existant, at least as far we could see.

We had reckoned that we might have lunch in the bazaar, even just some fruit, nuts and a drink. As it was the middle of Ramadan any sort of food was difficult to find, as were drinks.

We looked for the Church of St Mary. Tabriz has had a Christian community nearly as longs as there have been Christians. This 12 century church was mentioned by Marco Polo. Today it stands on a busy corner opposite the bazaar behind a high brick and steel fence. The gates were securely padlocked. The only visibility we had was of the conical zinc roof topped with a cross.

Our overnight destination was Kandovan a small town in the mountains built into the hillside. Our hotel for the night was a room in a cave. Today the town survives on its tourist income and a little honey and grazing sheep on the surrounding hillsides. At 2200m high the air was cool and dry. I should imagine that in winter the place would be snowed bound.